Life’s Work: An Interview With Shariful Islam, Founder, Bangladesh Brand Forum

Life’s Work: An Interview With Shariful Islam, Founder, Bangladesh Brand Forum

Dhaka Bank GO Credit BannerShariful Islam is the Founder of Bangladesh Brand Forum (BBF). Mr. Islam has an astounding body of work. Prior to starting BBF, he worked at several leading multinational companies including Unilever and Novartis among others. He left his high-flying corporate career to pursue more meaningful work which eventually led to the founding of Bangladesh Brand Forum. Over the past ten years, Bangladesh Brand Forum has done groundbreaking works in the field of branding and communications in Bangladesh. It has created a movement in the field of communication and branding in the country and now it is aiming even higher.

In this interview, Mr. Islam and I discuss a wide variety of issues including how intense physical training and strict discipline at Cadet College changed his life for the better, the declining importance of values in our society, limitation of our education system which is too occupied with just good grades and better jobs, why we don’t have that many global brands from Bangladesh and how we should deal with our huge young population. We discuss his journey to what he is doing today, the state of BBF today and his plans for the organization. We also talk about challenges for BBF in the coming years, organizational culture, his management philosophy and the importance of building a purpose-driven organization. We cap our conversation with an exploration of the inherently difficult nature of every meaningful journey and why we should overlook the difficulties on our way to achieving our ambition because ‘brick wall is there to keep other people out not us.’

The entire interview is a compendium of personal anecdotes and lessons, an excellent and intellectually empowering read in its entirety. ~ Ruhul Kader

Future Startup

Where did you grow up and how was your early life?

Shariful Islam

I spent a large part of my childhood in Khulna where my father, a Government employee, was posted. I started my schooling at Khulna Fatima School and then Khulna Zilla School. After that, I went to Jhenaidah Cadet College and from there I completed my intermediate.

While I had a typical childhood in Khulna, Cadet college was a distinct experience. Everything about my Cadet college experience was different.

We started with a markedly different orientation and had a very different grooming. We had to endure intense physical activities. Maintaining unwavering discipline was the norm.

Every year, after a nine months stint we used to enjoy a three-months long holiday. The experience at the college was so different that many of us struggled to properly mingle with other people during the vacation.

Despite its intense nature, the upside was way higher. It trained us to be disciplined and develop traits like hard work and dedication. It prepared us for life not only by teaching us textbooks but also by giving us a true education. We learned self-reliance, the importance of courage and responsibility. We made lifelong friendships that continue these days. My Cadet College experience had been instrumental to who I became later.

After HSC, I went to Dhaka University where I studied Public Administration. One of the reasons I chose Public Administration was because I did not know what I wanted to study and subsequently do in life, which may sound absurd to many young people today who exactly know what subject they want to study and why. But I did not have that clarity. In fact, it was quite rare in our time as well.

After completing my Master’s in Public Administration, I did an MBA from IBA in 1999. IBA was a big turning point in my life which had significantly changed my way of thinking and how I look at life. The mental orientation process that I went through at IBA and the people I met had helped me to understand myself better and build my confidence.

Despite being a shy person, I had to do some small things at IBA that eventually helped me to excel. I gave our orientation speech. I was practically nervous and trembling but I did it anyway. Then I conducted a meeting of South Asian Business School Directors and a couple more such small things. Even though these things look small, these small wins help you at the end of the day to believe in yourself.

Believing in yourself is important and empowering. Until you find yourself and find a reason for believing in your capacity, you perform below your potential and think that you could not do it. But when you start believing in yourself, things start to change. Life starts to change.

A Message From Dhaka Bank Limited

Dhaka Bank Go Contextual Native Ad BannerINTRODUCING DHAKA BANK GO – LET THE BANK MATCH YOUR DAILY SCHEDULE

Dhaka Bank Go gives you secure access to your Dhaka Bank Accounts and Credit Cards and other exciting facilities from your mobile devices anytime, anywhere. Explore and enjoy the infinite opportunities. Learn more here.

Despite its intense nature, the upside was way higher. It trained us to be disciplined and develop traits like hard work and dedication. It prepared us for life not only by teaching us textbooks but also by giving us a true education. We learned self-reliance, the importance of courage and responsibility. We made lifelong friendships that continue these days. My Cadet College experience had been instrumental to who I became later.

Future Startup

You have over 15 years of experience in building brands and building an organization like Bangladesh Brand Forum from scratch. Tell us about your journey to what you are doing today. Also, give us an overview of BBF.

Shariful Islam

I never had plans to build something of my own or pursue entrepreneurship. That said, looking back I can connect a couple of things: I love learning new things. I always listen to my heart and whenever I wanted to do something I plowed forward without thinking about the consequences.

The four years journey at Unilever was really something I cherish even these days. I learned a lot in those years. I also learned a lot during my short stint at New Zealand Dairy. At Novartis Bangladesh, my boss, for some reason, gave me a lot of freedom and I could put that into good use as well. I did a lot of experiments when I was at Novartis.

I had a really good time at Unilever but after working for four and a half years I realized that I was not enjoying the work. That’s when I decided to leave but I did not have a concrete plan about what I would do afterward.

After leaving Unilever, I did a little bit of voluntary work for one year. I helped Ahsania Mission Cancer Hospital in fundraising and I also worked with an event management firm. After a year, I started a brand consultancy firm called Brand Zeal, which is still there where we do brand consultancy and brand strategy related work.

Around that time, I went to Singapore to attend an event called Global Brand Forum organized by Singapore Brand Forum. That’s when I felt like putting together something similar in Bangladesh. I was looking for something more meaningful and impactful. That’s how the name came, Bangladesh Brand Forum from Singapore Brand Forum. We are not connected but that was sort of an inspiration.

At the beginning, it was just about branding. Slowly we have evolved into something that encompasses beyond simple company branding. Today, our ambition is to use knowledge, innovation, and branding ethos to build a better Bangladesh and take Bangladesh forward.

We launched Bangladesh Brand Forum in April 2007 through a seminar which was an equally interesting experience. When I conceived the idea, I had no clue. I did not know a thing about what to do and how to do it and was not sure whether people would attend or not. Then I thought that if Philip Kotler writes something on us it might help. After searching a bit, I managed to collect his email and wrote to him stating our work in Bangladesh and asking for his sort of endorsement for the initiative.

Surprisingly, he replied.

I have no clue even these days how that happened. Later on, he did not reply many important communications but he replied that first time. There was no logic and that helped us a lot. Since we were new and there was nothing on Brand Forum. That endorsement, kind of, from Kotler, gave us some sort of validity and importance. We put together a two-day long conference and that’s how we started.

The initial focus was on corporates with a view to educate and build awareness around branding and building sustainable brands. Partly because if you build brands that live for a long time it helps the country and when you have a longer term goal you do things more responsibly. Initially, that was the only focus, helping corporates to build lasting brands and at the same time, strategically promoting the idea of responsible businesses.

After doing a couple more seminars, we realized that there are more to do. That’s where the magazine came into being. We put together a monthly magazine which is still running well.

Doing a magazine was a different experience because we had no experience in publishing. Finding content was a challenge. I would email thirty-forty people every night asking for articles and occasionally would get responses from a couple of people.

Initially, 70% of content came from sources abroad, different magazines and other sources. We started to receive local content much later. Initially, we used to give it to different distribution points but later we stopped it due to lack of interest in buying magazines in our culture. Now we distribute it for free. We started to share knowledge and understanding and case studies through the magazine.

Then we wanted to show local business owners the benefit of doing the right things. We thought about it and came up with a recognition system that would reward the best practices. That’s how Best Brand Award came into existence. Initially, we had a partnership with Nielsen and now with Millward Brown. For the last six years, we have been recognizing the most loved brands in the country.

Then we focused on communication. Communication is where brands invest the most. So in order to recognize the best ways of communications we have come up with CommWard. We have a partnership with Cannes. And we have added another component to it which is our Leadership Summit.

We saw that in order to build a lasting business, leaders need to understand it. That’s where Leadership Summit came in. After doing these works for a couple of years we realized that since we work for Bangladesh, we want to work in the space of Nation Branding.

Nation branding is a very complex idea and we realized that we can’t do it alone without the Government. We made some presentations to the government on the importance and concept of nation branding. The government did some work in the space and is probably doing these days as well. While Government was working on its own, we thought we could do something ourselves.

We came up with a simple concept: branding of our nation depends on how as a nation we deliver on our promises. What do people expect when they hear the name Bangladesh? Can we do something to change that expectation and match with something that we can deliver? That was a simple idea.

We did an event in London titled ‘Meet Bangladesh: Asia’s Next Big Opportunity’ focusing on business. And then gradually we started to add culture and history and stories to it. Because a country is not just numbers. People, art, culture, nature, stories these are much more powerful than numbers. Number drives us but it can’t touch our hearts. We started to work on these things on a small scale. We did another meet in New York and then in Paris and then in Washington DC.

While working on these projects, we also started working with different associations. We have launched an annual award jointly with GIZ titled Social and Environmental Compliance Award for RMG sector. In RMG sector people don’t take compliance positively. We thought about how we can solve this problem, can we create some sort of awareness and social recognition system? We found out that there is a fear regarding compliance and there is a lack of trust in compliance. So we thought let’s recognize the best practices, globally we could showcase them and locally it would encourage more people to do the responsible thing.

We do Export Award with HSBC. We do Agro Award with Standard Chartered Bank. We did Dhaka Apparel Summit in collaboration with Apparel sector recently. So these are some of the projects we did and there are many other projects where we became slowly involved.

While doing all these work, we have narrowed our focus into three areas: Corporate, Women, and Youth. We realized that in order to make sustainable progress we have to make sure that our women play a very active role in the society. That’s where our WIL-Women in Leadership project comes in.

Under WIL, we have got four subprojects: We do ‘Inspiring Women Award’ every year on the 8th March where we try showcasing some role models. Then we created a Women Leaders Network where a group of women come together and collectively think about a path forward to making improvements. We are still trying to figure this out.

We have put together a quarterly publication for women, which is not yet that regular. We do a Women Leadership Summit where we share local and global knowledge and perspective. Then we are working on a new project called Leaders of Tomorrow where we want to work with the Universities to bring out more women leaders and increase the number of women participating in the workforce and reach their potential. We have an award called Inspiring Male for people who help their spouse to pursue their dreams.

Lastly, we have launched our youth project. Last year, we started it with our YouthFest. This year we are doing it again in eight regions. This is connected to our next ten years Vision where we are saying that how do we push the growth of eight regions in order to have a more inclusive, value-driven growth for the country. We are talking about more responsible activities from youth where everyone would be thinking about collective good over individual progress.

We are trying to create eight innovation hubs in eight regions which will help prepare skilled human resources who will be thinking about society and country while also investing in individual excellence. We believe our youth has a key role to play here.

That’s how we are trying to push inclusive growth through regional innovation hubs. We are trying to connect people who are passionate about their cities because we need a lot of great minds.

For instance, we have identified people who are living in Dhaka coming from different cities but very passionate about their region. We are identifying diaspora who are living abroad from different regions. They are of course passionate about Bangladesh but they are also equally passionate about their own region. We are trying to put all these people together and working out a program that would push these regions forward.

We have two projects here: one is branding for these eight regions, and youth is the centerpiece here which connects all the initiatives and another is ‘Bangladesh Now’-a project through which we are trying to connect diasporas from all these eight regions. That’s our next ten years dreams.

Believing in yourself is important and empowering. Until you find yourself and find a reason for believing in your capacity, you perform below your potential and think that you could not do it. But when you start believing in yourself, things start to change. Life starts to change.

Future Startup

How much has BBF evolved as an organization over the past years?

Shariful Islam

Ten years sound quite a long time but in comparison to our ambition, we have not done much in the last ten years. We did a lot of experiments and tried many things. Many of our experiments failed and a few succeeded but I think we are far behind from where we wanted to reach.

That said, whatever work we have done is because of the support we have received from so many people. We have received a tremendous amount of support from an incredible number of people. Without their supports, I don’t think we would have been able to do much.

Although we are a commercial organization, our approach is not typical commercial. We struggled a lot when it comes to finance and money because we never took a profit-driven approach.

We have always been driven by the passion. We take this work as our mission.

Our goal is to push the growth of Bangladesh. The past ten years gave us the confidence that we will be able to pursue work that will make big difference in Bangladesh in the coming years. It was more like a preparation, we were just getting started.

Future Startup

Tell us about challenges and trials you faced in the early days of Brand Forum. What challenges do you anticipate in the future?

Shariful Islam

Our work is largely about changing behavior through knowledge which is a complex work and a difficult feat to achieve.

In the early days, the challenges were more typical ones. Finance was a big challenge. Putting things together was a big challenge. I did not have much credibility back then, so it was difficult to convince people to come and speak at our events or write for our magazine.

Now those are not the issues anymore. Even financially if a project does not make sense for us now, we still can figure it out. Because we probably do fifteen projects a year. We can balance it. If a project we think is really important for us but it is not financially viable, we still go forward.

Initially, we probably had three projects. My entire team probably worked based on those three projects. We did not have much clarity about what we wanted to do. It was not like a typical business where you go and sell things. Lots of it was figuring out what we wanted to do.

We could not afford research to figure out things, instead, we did a lot of experiments in order to develop a better understanding of our work. It was challenging but those days are helping us now to move to the areas where we really want to go.

In the last ten years, we have made many invaluable connections locally and globally. It took us ten years to build this foundation. Now hopefully we will be able to push the next level of growth.

When we started back in 2007, I used to work for an event management company called Response. Initially, they helped us a lot. I mostly worked alone during those days. They helped us to put together the first event and manage it. Then a couple of months later we became two people and today we are 22 people.

We don’t focus much on revenue and all those things although we are a for-profit entity. Rather we focus on things that we want to do and find out ways to go about those things. Our work calls for a different kind of approach where you can’t really go by numbers. We are not a non-profit organization but we mostly work for Bangladesh.

In the coming years, we think this pattern will continue. Apart from Bangladesh, we are now working in four other countries where we are connecting the diasporas. These are heavy investments that we are making without much consideration about profit and return.

That said, we are trying to be more disciplined and competent financially. We are also working on a new project called BBF Center for Knowledge and Education so that we can contribute more materially in the areas of skill development and all others important areas of knowledge work.

Future Startup

What is your management philosophy?

Shariful Islam

I’m not a good manager. In fact, I don’t like managing. I don’t spend much time in the office. I often work from outside. I love creativity and creating things. When it comes to managing people, I try to help people to realize their full potential instead of managing them which is a bigger challenge.

I like to push people to be more and do more and achieve more and that’s sort of how I look at management. Enabling people to do their best. I don’t bother much about coming to office and working from a certain place and at a certain time as long as work is done and goals are met.

At BBF, we are very chaotic in how we operate, there is no structure as such. We empower people and try to motivate them to go and figure things out which does not work sometimes. It is very difficult if you don’t take responsibility and ownership to work in such an environment.

What we do is we try to find structure in the chaos. And it is very much passion and love for the work. We are trying to find a balance between freedom and accountability where people work with ownership.

I’m not a good manager. In fact, I don’t like managing. I don’t spend much time in the office. I often work from outside. I love creativity and creating things. When it comes to managing people, I try to help people to realize their full potential instead of managing them which is a bigger challenge.

Future Startup

The purpose of education, Bertrand Russell proclaimed many years ago, is to build character. You have been working with young people for a while now. On that note, what’s your take on our education system?

Shariful Islam

Any discussion about education should start with a discussion about values. Values are our guiding principles, for individuals, for companies and for the society as a whole. Our values tell us what I should do and what I should not do. Values are the bedrock of character.

I think many of us would be able to relate, we grew up in a strict value-driven society. Our parents taught us about values. In fact, it was part of the basic orientation we had received when we were kids. Never lie, respect others, don’t harm another person- these were fundament teachings kids commonly received in every family.

Lying was a huge crime. Discipline, you have to come home on time. Hard work was important. Without hard work, you would not be able to do much in life. Honesty was a very big thing. You have to be very honest.

The study was important but our parents did not bother much about study after school but they were very conscious about misbehavior, lying, dishonesty. We received punishment for any wrongdoing. Consequently, those values actually have stayed back with us.

What I feel is that we don’t discuss these things anymore. Our school and parents talk about studies, good grades but seldom about honesty or integrity. Individual excellence achieved through any means has become everything.

The theory is simple: study hard, get a good job or start your own business and earn a lot of money and become someone respectable in your society. The problem with such a model is that we start caring less about means through which we gather wealth or achieve success.

This relentless profiting mentality has driven the unparalleled income disparity across the world and caused problems like climate change that we will have to tackle for the rest of our lives.

Today, we see companies worldwide are talking about purpose along with profit. Because we have suddenly come to realize that the model of capitalism that only cares about profit regardless of its aftermath has put us into a problem beyond our control.

We need to integrate these values in our education system, lives, and organizations. That we have to think about the greater good of the society if we want to live a better life ourselves.

It is not enough to talk about this at the policy level alone. We have to integrate these values into our children from the very early age. That it is important to think about other people. It is important to think about planet and society. It is important to be tolerant. I may not agree with you but you have all the rights to be yourself. I think the most important job of any good education is inculcating these values in a person.

The second thing is that a good education should prepare a person for the life and make a person aware of her own potential and worth and guide a person to pursue her passion and ambition.

We have suddenly become very attached to good result and made it almost the entire point of education. Good result and a good job are important but should not be the sole purpose of education. We have explicitly made getting a good job the entire point of the education which I think is very detrimental to the society.

I think the purpose of the education should be to help me identify my potential so that I can pursue my potential and live a fulfilling life. Of course, money is important, there is no denying of that but is not the most important thing in life that we have made of it. Once you have managed to fulfill your basic needs money has a very little role to play.

There is no end to our desire. We continue asking for more and more. I think that is a basic orientational problem in our society. I think as a society we have become materialistic and at the same time, very approval-driven.

Our parents want us to be a doctor, or go abroad or do a big job so that they can feel proud of us. They can talk about the material success their son has achieved. The discussion of fulfillment is absent in our society. We don’t talk much about potentials we have. The problem is when one person falls short of realizing her potential the entire society loses.

If I had the potential to be Usain Bolt or Mustafiz and if somehow I could not get there, it is a loss for both the society – society misses out a great bowler – and also for me – I can’t live a fulfilling life. I think there are lots of people in our society who are not living their potential.

At BBF, we are very chaotic in how we operate, there is no structure as such. We empower people and try to motivate them to go and figure things out which does not work sometimes. It is very difficult if you don’t take responsibility and ownership to work in such an environment.

Future Startup

We have a huge young population, our median age is 25.4, which is a huge opportunity as well as a challenge. If we fail, this will be our biggest risk factor. There are questions around quality of our graduates as well as opportunities that are available to our young people. Youth unemployment is rising. How do you think about this opportunity or challenge for that matter?

Shariful Islam

It is true that in order to turn this huge population into resources all of us have to work but the government has to play the most important role because the government has the machinery and can orchestrate things to the right direction.

We are living in a disruptive time. The time in the coming years is going to be fundamentally different about which we know very little yet.
In our time, we did an MBA and that’s it. Done with your education.

But today’s world is different. You have to learn throughout your life and career. Several predictions say that you will be working in five different professions in your career which means we have to update and evolve all the time just like a mobile application!

This is a new mindset and we have to create this mindset in our young people and we have to start early, if possible from school. We have to go down there to primary schools and have to think fast forward twenty years when this kid will be out of school and then try to prepare them for that future. This is not an easy job and we may not know many things of that future yet but we have to gauge and understand and act.

Our demographic dividend is a matter of fifteen-twenty years after which it will be reversed. Just look at Japan, it is seriously struggling with an aging population. And these are countries with massive technological advancement. Now imagine what will happen to us if we can’t get to that level within a certain period of time.

The next ten to fifteen years is not going to be an issue for Bangladesh. We will be growing quite steadily in the next couple of years. The question is what happens after that.

If we can’t prepare for that future then after ten-twenty years we will end up with a huge struggling young population. Which will be no short of a disaster. Then you can use these people for anything and social instability may ensue.

Youth have a responsibility to take, yes of course. The question is can I create a sense of responsibility in them if not then we have done something wrong while raising these people. That means they had exposure to the wrong values, things, and culture.

The problems about young people that they don’t want to work harder or are not humble is a common complaint. We are getting it from different sources. It means this is a real problem and I think we can’t fix this problem at the university level. It has something to do with how we are grooming these people, parenting them and all the exposure they have to things across the board.

Why don’t we have skilled mid-level professionals in Bangladesh, why do I have to get so many professionals from abroad? On the one side, we are having this conversation – which is to some extent driven by emotion – that we are giving jobs to foreigners. When you are running a business your target is to make sure that your business does well, runs smoothly and for that, you need good people no matter where they come from.

I think these are major issues and collectively we have to work in order to make material progress.

Future Startup

We don’t have that many local brands doing well globally, in fact, local brands often struggle when a multinational brand comes into the market. There are exceptions, of course, but that is the general situation. How do you think about it?

Shariful Islam

Purpose and values, these are critical if you are to build a lasting organization. It can’t be money. Money can’t motivative for long. It needs to be something bigger than money. Purpose driven by the right values is the key.

Strategy and thinking, I think everyone can do that. If you need help with the strategy you can bring experts but the purpose is critical. You can’t hire purpose. I think even the best minds make mistakes. You can learn from your mistakes and do better the next time but the purpose is different because it takes time. It is hard to build a purpose-driven organization.

I think the vision of the founders and to what extent the team has taken on that vision is critical. You have to have the vision and purpose and then have to inculcate it into your people. That’s I think is the most important part.

I think the purpose of the education should be to help me identify my potential so that I can pursue my potential and live a fulfilling life. Of course, money is important, there is no denying of that but is not the most important thing in life that we have made of it. Once you have managed to fulfill your basic needs money has a very little role to play.

Future Startup

Do you feel down? How do you pull yourself up when you feel really down or come across a big challenge?

Shariful Islam

It happens all the time. I take a long sleep. If I get a good night sleep I’m good by the morning. Challenges and failures often don’t get best of me.

This is probably because of the years of experience but what really affects me is the negative energy of people who try to pull you down. Other than that, rest of the thing is about figuring things out.

Future Startup

What advice would you give to people who are just starting out?

Shariful Islam

No matter what you do, it is going to be a very tough journey. Very few of you will be lucky enough to make it. Those are the aberration. Facebook is not an example, it is an aberration.

It means you are going to fail, you are going to be disheartened, the only thing that will keep you alive is if you take failure as a natural outcome and despite that continue to love your work.

I often recommend the Last Lecture by Randy Pausch to young people where he talks about human values, respecting people, and helping people. If anyone asks me I think those are more important things than anything else in life although we don’t talk much about these things in business.

Learning skills is not that difficult as long as you invest time and energy but it takes real effort to be a human.

Another thing that Randy talks about in the lecture, that I often go back to, is not getting demoralized in the face of challenge. He says: “The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.”

No matter what you do, it is going to be a very tough journey. Very few of you will be lucky enough to make it. Those are the aberration. Facebook is not an example, it is an aberration. It means you are going to fail, you are going to be disheartened, the only thing that will keep you alive is if you take failure as a natural outcome and despite that continue to love your work.

(Interview by Ruhul Kader | Mohammad Tashnim contributed to this interview | Image: file photo, BBF)

Type to Search

See all results
Shares